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The Kindness of Strangers

She found herself thinking the worst of people―until she was graced with an act of simple, unexpected generosity that changed her perspective.

By Mary Karr
Two women sitting side by side with purses in their laps Anna Moller
One night shortly after Thanksgiving last year, a deeply crummy mind-set I’d taken on went though an instantaneous reversal. As if a magician had said, “Presto,” the New York City landscape likewise flipped from seedy to radiant. The shift proved that the city I move through every day (often with narrowed eyes and clenched jaw) is partly a projection of my self-centered fears. With an attitude adjustment, I came to see that a dark world can become floodlit in a heartbeat.

I had been in upstate New York. Bad flying weather had nudged me to take the bus back to the city from Syracuse University, where I teach during the week. I hadn’t boarded a Greyhound since my surf-bum youth, back when the seats still sported ashtrays. Lugging my computer bag and suitcase down the aisle that snowy day, I felt stared at, like an outsider, which, honestly, stung more than it should have.

A few stops out, a gray-haired lady and a girl about 5 years old slid into the row in front of me. Though the woman’s bun was springing scraggles at the hairline, the girl’s tight braids must have taken a full day to do. She had a round pudding face with curious eyes. As I marked papers with a pen, her chin rested on the seat top before me. “Schoolteachers are supposed to use a red pencil,” she said.

Told to stop bothering the lady, the girl announced she was starving to death. At which point, the woman fished out a single sleeve of soda crackers, claiming that was all they had until they reached the Bronx―a good five hours away. The kid crunched loudly through the crackers in a spray of crumbs. When she complained of thirst, the woman said, “There will be water fountains at the Albany layover. Just drink your own spit.”

Before long, the girl had swung around to my seat to demonstrate her double-jointed elbows and thumbs as well as a disturbingly loud clack in her jaw when she opened her mouth full bore. I gave her a pad and a pen, and soon she sat beside me outlining slope-sided apartment buildings and wavy sidewalks peopled with trolls. 
 
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